The process of NBA free agency is riveting for how much we don't know. Everything important happens behind closed doors, and everything that trickles out is spin. The juiciest bits make for conversation pieces; the idea that LaMarcus Aldridge would turn down the Lakers is so much less specific and titillating than the thought of the tone-deaf, basketball-less pitch that reports have suggested.
On Wednesday, the already sensational DeAndre Jordan saga found its captivating imagery. An entire Clippers contingent—reportedly including Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, J.J. Redick, and team owner Steve Ballmer—traveled to Jordan's home in Houston for a last-ditch effort to change the mind of an already committed free agent. They succeeded. They refused communication with Mavs owner Mark Cuban, Dallas forward Chandler Parsons or Jordan's agent. They played cards and video games. They stayed with Jordan until the official end of the NBA moratorium at midnight ET and saw his re-signing through to completion.
The night that resurrected one franchise and devastated another played out in absurdity, reported in real time as history’s most amicable hostage crisis. Jordan broke no rule save for the functional binding of the NBA's moratorium. Each of the dozens of agreements made since July 1 are considered all but official. Jordan’s word to join the Mavericks on a four-year, $80 million contract was apparently the lone exception.
Some level of indecision on Jordan’s part would be understood, even expected. Once he informed Dallas of his intent to sign, however, Jordan effectively tied up the Mavs’ cap space with a slot marked for his eventual maximum salary. All Dallas did was operate under the same assumption as every other team in the league in regards to commitments made during the moratorium. Yet from the time of Jordan's agreement on July 4 until his official reneging, more than 30 other free agents agreed to sign elsewhere with the understanding that Dallas was capped out.
There is no recourse. Plans A, B and C are off the table for Dallas, which is now reportedly operating under whatever contingency to a contingency to a contingency would lead it to consider signing (and presumably starting) former Wizard Kevin Seraphin. The Mavericks could try to work their way into the mix to acquire Pacers center Roy Hibbert, though Cuban is already on record in stating that the Mavs would be in a position to “take a step back” if Jordan were to sign elsewhere. It was a comment made, then, as a counterfactual; DeAndre Jordan was to be a Maverick and Cuban was waxing on what wouldn’t be. Whether he and the Mavs follow through on that thought remains to be seen.
Dirk Nowitzki, mind you, is nearing retirement. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle is notorious for his impatience with young players and may not have the stomach for a long-term rebuild. Wesley Matthews, about to turn 29, will soon be added on a four-year deal. Dallas’s protected first-round pick in 2016 is still owed to the Celtics if it falls outside the top seven. Jordan doubling back doesn’t just wreck the Mavericks’ prospects this season and scrap the structure of its core moving forward. It could well trigger the unraveling of the team as we know it, starting with another of Nowitzki’s twilight years turning up empty.
Jordan has no reason to hold himself responsible for the fate of the Mavericks. The same basic fallout would have been in play, after all, had he opted to re-sign with the Clippers under less shady circumstances. What Jordan did owe Dallas was some shred of courtesy. This entire episode was wrought of Jordan’s failure to take his time and make the decision he actually wanted. Take the face-to-face meeting. Make the phone call. Hell, send a text to Cuban with some elaborate message conveyed only in emojis. Some explanation seems necessary for the sudden dissolution of an $80 million agreement—not offer, agreement—even if Jordan is entitled to change his mind.
One could find fault, too, with the Clippers for disregarding an established deal in their push to turn Jordan. Some things are worth being underhanded. The Clips earned the ire of Cuban, the Mavs on the whole and agent Dan Fegan (who had represented Jordan until being boxed out on Wednesday) because losing Jordan meant losing any hope of playing into June. L.A. would have been limited to minimum-salary types to replace an All-NBA candidate, resigned to mere playoff qualification or worse.
Teams in a position to vie for a title assess risk in a different way. Most of the time that manifests in terms of trade analysis or luxury tax payments. Here, the ocean between being one of the best teams in the West and being a capped-out also-ran gave the Clippers incentive enough to disregard the NBA’s unwritten rules, repercussions be damned. There was nothing at all noble about what the Clippers did on Wednesday. That they had the gall to do it, however, preserved a precious and delicate opportunity to contend for basketball's ultimate prize.